Aja Evans is fearless when sliding down an icy track at 80 mph. Now, if you take her to, say, an amusement park, that's a different story.
"I am scared of stuff," the 25-year-old Chicago native said. "I am very scared of roller coasters, which is really weird because I'm on the Olympic bobsled team."
The former Morgan Park High School and University of Illinois track star is one of the top American brakemen. Evans paired with driver Elana Meyers to take second at the World Cup in January. In Sochi, she’ll team with driver Jamie Greubel; the women's competition begins Tuesday.
And come 2016, Evans hopes to become one of only a handful of Americanathletes to compete in both the Summer and Winter Games; she is aiming for a spot in the heptathlon.
RedEye caught up with Evans to talk bragging rights over NFL stars, "Cool Runnings" and carrying the banner for the Windy City.
You’ve trained with NFL players. Do you have any bragging rights?
I have bragging rights over a lot of them. When I started preparing for bobsled, I trained one-on-one with Matt Forte and kind of stuck with him, with a lot of his workouts. That was a huge learning experience for me. Not only did I excel physically, but mentally. Football players just have a different mentality. I can officially say I’ve beaten a couple of them in a race, and I am the reigning, undefeated box jump champ.
You’re seeing more minority competitors in the Winter Olympics. How does it feel to be a part of that, and what can be done to improve those numbers?
I think it’s an honor to have so many people rooting for me. African-American people and these young girls alone, to just know that my story is inspiring them, that inspires me just as much as it inspires them. To be a part of something so big and not even realize it, it’s crazy. Just to hear you say those words, it hits me on an entirely different level because I’m just doing what I know I can do and trying to show the world what I’m capable of. And in the process we’re making history, we’re inspiring all these people. It’s bigger than just me, it’s bigger than just this sport. I think recruiting in general, not just on a minority level or anything like that, they really need to go after these collegiate athletes. Just because you don’t get to go professional in the sports you’ve been doing all throughout college or growing up, it doesn’t mean that your time as an athlete on an elite level are over.
Do you want to be a bobsled driver someday?
Uh, no. I don’t really see driving in my future. I definitely want to try it just to say I’ve driven a bobsled. But I feel like I have unfinished business in track and field, so that’s my next goal after the Olympic Games.
Do you have a favorite line from “Cool Runnings”?
[Laughs] Yeah, I do. When I was in Calgary, Canada, I actually got to go to that little bar where they had that bar fight. ... Basically that line where he’s repeating ... “I see pride, I see power, I see a badass mutha who won’t take nothing from no one.”
Do you wish there was any other movie people would reference when it comes to bobsledding?
That’s a good question. When you think of bobsledding, it’s instantly “Cool Runnings” and kind of like, “Ha ha ha, Jamaican bobsled team.” But this sport is so much harder than people think. Sliding, that’s the easiest part. There’s so much behind the scenes and stuff that goes into the sport that you wouldn’t even realize. But offhand I can’t think of another movie that I wished they referenced.
Who would play you in a movie?
I haven’t really come across an actress that I think could play me very well. I don’t know. I wouldn’t mind playing myself. [Laughs.]
Finish this sentence: “The U.S will win gold if we ...”
... do everything we know we’re capable of. In Sochi, you have to have that quick, explosive start, and the track is short, so everything about Sochi plays to our advantages, it plays to our strengths. We’re unmatched when it comes to the brakeman side. No one can touch us at the start. And so as long as we do what we know we’re capable of, then the Olympic gold is ours for the taking.
What does it mean to represent Chicago in these Games?
It’s so cool. It’s an honor. I have so much love and support from the city of Chicago as a whole. At first it was just my friends and family and stuff like that, but literally I feel like the city has my back, and that means the world to me.
Are you going to have a flag or pin or something that says “Chicago” for the medal stand if you win?
I may have to look into that. [Laughs.] We have to wear so much Olympic stuff, I don’t know if I have anywhere to put it.
What do you think of the new Ralph Lauren uniforms?
I mean, I think they’re cute. What are the Olympic Games if you don’t have anything out there like that? Everyone’s uniform is going to be all types of crazy, all types of fun, colorful. And it’s just meant to be an enjoyable experience. It’s meant to be talked about, it’s meant to draw attention, so I think it’s doing just that, and I’m going to make it look as cute as possible.
WHAT DOES A BRAKEMAN DO?
Sure, bobsledding looks simple, but winning a race decided by hundredths of a second requires more skill than meets the eye. American brakeman Aja Evans, who owns the start record for the Sochi track, breaks it down.
Step 1: Explode
“As soon as you hit the sled you want to get your hips behind and get a lot of power going forward right off the block. You want to run with it really well, putting all that power and speed behind the sled.”
Step 2: Duck
“You also want to have an efficient load. After the driver loads into the sled, you want to have those quick, powerful steps and you load in right behind them. After [the driver loads], you just get down as low as you can and hold on for the ride.”
Step 3: Loosen up
“Even though [brakemen] don’t control much, you still want to make sure you’re being as aerodynamic as possible. So you want your back to be as flat as possible, your head low and your upper body more relaxed so if we do hit off a wall and we do have any bumps, you absorb the impact rather than being all stiff and making the sled slide or anything like that.”
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